Newsweek Is Dying, But Its Spirit Lives On

Newsweek Is Dying, But Its Spirit Lives On
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Tina Brown, Editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast, listens to a speaker during the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative meeting, September 22, 2011 in New York. AFP PHOTO/STEPHEN CHERNIN (Photo credit should read STEPHEN CHERNIN/AFP/Getty Images)
Tina Brown, Editor-in-chief of Newsweek magazine and The Daily Beast, listens to a speaker during the 2011 Clinton Global Initiative meeting, September 22, 2011 in New York. AFP PHOTO/STEPHEN CHERNIN (Photo credit should read STEPHEN CHERNIN/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON -- Back in the day, when you were working on a cover story for Newsweek, nothing else in the world mattered.

On a winter Iowa day in 1996, that meant figuring out how to get from Des Moines to Pierre, South Dakota, in a blinding snowstorm.

I was working on a cover -- going to press later that week -- on Sen. Bob Dole's then-nascent Republican campaign for the presidency. Dole and his staff didn't want to do the interview, but didn't want to flatly turn me down. So they said I could have it, but only if I met him the next day at the South Dakota legislature.

I couldn't not get the interview.

It was a cover story. One of the best photographers in the world, David Hume Kennerly, was doing the cover shoot. I had a new national affairs editor (a kid named Jon Meacham) and a Washington bureau chief (Evan Thomas) to impress -- not to mention the top editor in New York, a swashbuckling character named Maynard Parker whose favorite editorial command was to "scramble the jets" -- meaning, scrap everything we had reported so far that week and jump on a story with more "news energy."

What if Time was working on a cover, too? What if they were getting the interview? Just as bad, if not worse, what if Dole was talking to those snobs at The New York Times, who ruled the universe?

Long story short: I was able to fly commercial to Minneapolis. But I got to Pierre the only way I could: alone in the passenger compartment of an eight-seater I chartered with no notice at a private airport in St. Cloud, Minn.

The shocked look on Dole's face when I materialized in the Statehouse chamber made the trip worthwhile. I got the interview. We did the cover, which Dole hated, but which came to define the race. Or so we told ourselves.

I'm taking a break from Obama-Romney to talk about Newsweek, the nearly 80-year-old magazine at which I worked for three decades, which soon will perish in print, and which probably is not long for this world in any form.

Let me start with this: the spirit of Newsweek is alive and well at places such as The Huffington Post, and I'm not just saying that because I work here. It's alive at Tina Brown's Daily Beast, too, and elsewhere on the web, in print, and, I hate to say it, at Time.

I tweeted earlier today that I was going to be "ruminating" about the death of Newsweek and someone suggested that I "ruminate" instead on the decline of "News with a capital 'N.'" Well I have, and I don't believe for a minute that one equals the other. We want to do excellent reporting and writing; the best way to honor a place such as Newsweek is to seek to match what it did in both.

I'll leave it to others, at least for now, to explain the decline and fall of Newsweek. At this point I would prefer to remember better times.

In its prime, which lasted an astonishingly long time -- from the early 1960s to the mid-2000s -- Newsweek was as innovative, eminent and influential as any news organization in America or the world. Not every week, every issue or every story, but overall.

The impact of a newsmagazine was cumulative and even glacial -- measured in decades not years, weeks or daily news cycles. The game, at heart, was to comprehend vast, historical cultural and political changes before others did, and document them in detail.

We liked to call ourselves the "first rough draft of history" and we meant it. Newsweek rose to equal status with Time -- the founder of the genre -- by being years ahead of it and the rest of the media Establishment on three tectonic stories of the 1960s and 1970s: the civil rights movement; the anti-Vietnam-War and protest movement; and the "sexual revolution" and feminist movements.

While we considered Time Magazine, which invented the genre, to be our main competition (we called them "Brand X"), we thought of ourselves as the journalistic equals of, and in some ways superior to, The New York Times, The Washington Post or anyone else.

The roster of terrific journalists is as distinguished as any in American history. Of them all there are two I want to mention -- no disrespect to any of the others.

One is a "writer" and one a "correspondent." In the old days, they were separate duties.

Today no one separates the two functions, but earlier on the news magazines did so. There were two basic reasons. One was an accident of history. Time had started as a rewrite shop, essentially, and at first did not have its own reporters. As Europe moved towards World War II, Time started the Time-Life News Service. Newsweek then copied the model, more or less.

The second reason for separating the functions was technical. Before word processor, computers and the Internet, the only way to write stories "to space" was to have someone in New York do it. And since the stories often were written in narrative form -- an anecdotal "lede," a "billboard," a string of narrative "grafs" and a closing "kicker" -- you couldn't cut from the bottom, as you could a newspaper story. You had to prune it to fit.

The writer who gave the knowing, insiderly, vaguely literary and yet unassuming "voice" to Newsweek -- and the magazine had a voice, you could hear it as you read it, and that was the point -- was the masterly Peter Goldman. He wrote like a dream, digesting all of the reporting files sent to him; finding the juiciest and freshest morsels of news that had not made print elsewhere. For decades, he was Newsweek, at least to me.

Peter would pace the hallways in New York, grave and studious and lost in thought, when he was preparing to write a story. Ben Bradlee, who was a Newsweek D.C. bureau chief before going to The Washington Post, described Peter as a "one man funeral cortege."

The reporter who fed Goldie the most precious gems was Eleanor Clift, as good a reporter as there has been in Washington, with the indefatigability of a Mike Allen, the discerning eye of a Mo Dowd and the wry humility of, well, no one else I know in the city.

The story of her rise is, to me, the essence of Newsweek. She was working in the Atlanta Bureau as a secretary in the early 1960s when the Civil Rights movement was the story. The mag had a terrific bureau, but it was overwhelmed. The bureau chief, pressed for help, sent Eleanor to a rally, where she used her knowledge of shorthand to take notes -- and then wrote an astonishingly thorough and observant file for New York.

Soon, Goldman and Clift were a team. Their cover story on a little known Georgia governor -- Jimmy Carter -- is one of the best pieces of political journalism I ever read. I was in Louisville as a young reporter at the time. It is the reason I chose to work at Newsweek.

So far as I know, Eleanor never had to charter a plane. That was left to lesser lights.

Howard Fineman worked for Newsweek from 1980 to 2010.

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